Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Better, Closer, Warmer/ RVP

Arsenal are grinding out wins, dismantling the wall of discontent brick by brick.

Since that defeat in a close-fought North London derby, the Gunners have twice been indebted to their captain and talisman Robin Van Persie. He scored braces against Sunderland and Stoke respectively to ensure six points from the last two home league games.

His performance against Sunderland was memorable not only for two well-taken goals- one smashed in with his right, the other a free kick curled home with his left- but also for an audacious attempt that so nearly proved a goal of the season contender. With the score at 1-0, Van Persie collected an Arteta pass, bamboozled Kieran Richardson with a cute dragback, and lofted a cheeky chip from the edge of the box that confounded the keeper but rebounded off the upright and out.

He is certainly Arsenal's best player, and his familiarity with the woodwork means he is probably the league's unluckiest.

There have been many improvements in Van Persie's game over the last few seasons. He is now very two-footed. He scores a lot with what he once termed his "chocolate leg", and the chipped effort in the Sunderland game also came courtesy of his right foot.

His team play has improved a lot since his early Arsenal days, when he was an exciting and often spectacular player with a very individualistic style that sometimes angered team mates.

He is more mature, more of a leader, deserving of the armband.

Lastly, and most importantly, he is scoring many goals, different goals. His vicious left foot and his considerable ability meant he was never starved of goals (except while injured), but in the early days, he was as likely to score from twenty yards as from three. Although never as averse to the tap in as Bergkamp, Van Persie was something of a DIY finisher, a man who would wait for the ball to be played to him, feint this way and that, then smash a shot from whatever angle he saw fit. It often made for spectacular viewing, but nobody ever suggested he was the much sought "fox in the box" that Arsenal are always said to lack.

Against Stoke, however, his match-winning brace was more reminiscent of Van Nistelrooy than Bergkamp. Both goals were the product of intelligent, hungry movement inside the box. And this is typical of Van Persie's output in the last few seasons. He is scoring more in and around the six yard box and this is why he is more prolific. It's actually been a while since he scored a truly spectacular goal- his free kick against Sunderland was the first such goal he has scored in a long time, and there has been nothing of late to rival his comic strip volley against Charlton or his sumptuous curler against Blackburn- but that does not matter, because he has become a better, more effective player.

New boy Gervinho has already shown frequent signs of a good understanding with the Dutchman. He may not be quite as quick as Walcott, but he uses his pace better when running with the ball. Walcott so often looks clueless when confronted with a full back and the ball at his own feet. Gervinho, on the other hand, has a handy habit of cruising beyond his marker with a sudden burst of acceleration. This led to Van Persie's two goals against Stoke, and also the vital equaliser in the away leg against Udinese. Gervinho also teed up the Dutchman's first against Sunderland with a nicely weighted pass. With this Arsenal team struggling to find much rhythm or swagger, the forging of some fruitful partnerships is vital. Signs are that there is genuine chemistry between these two.

Between the Sunderland and Stoke games, Arsenal executed a classic smash and grab in a sleepy Champions League game against Marseille, leaving qualification as group winners a distinct and welcome possibility. The game was a non-entity. Marseille's league form has been terrible, and they somehow managed not to trouble Arsenal's wobbly rearguard. With the match petering out in a dreary stalemate, a late attack saw Gervinho's micontrol fall kindly for Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman's first touch threatened to take him into traffic but he kept his composure and swept the ball home.

Last night, Arsenal reserves beat a strong Bolton side in the Carling Cup. Former Gunner Fabrice Muamba opened the scoring for the visitors, but Arshavin levelled with a fine run and finish. The Russian quickly turned provider. After another positive run he waited patiently to allow Park onside, then weighted his pass perfectly so that the Korean could shoot first time. His confident, curled finish was hopefully a sign of things to come, as Arsenal badly need another regular goalscorer to take some of that weight off Van Persie's shoulders.

So the last few games have provided some kind of lift in mood, but talk of a real revival may be premature. Arsenal have failed in all of the big tests so far, and while results are always paramont, there is still a feeling that lately, they have been labouring to victory against poor opposition. They have not played well for a solid ninety minutes, they still show no notion of how to defend set pieces, and they are still without an away win in the league. And next up, they go to Stamford Bridge.

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